For work on Tuesday, I got paid to go listen to Francis Collins, who headed the National Institutes of Health project on sequencing of the human genome, talk about “The Future of Genomics and Personalized Medicine.”
I was inspired. Sequencing the genome is not just the greatest thing since slice bread, it’s the greatest thing since the personal computer. If we follow through on Dr. Collins’s recommendations, we really will end up with the kind of health care that up to now has only appeared in optimistic science fiction.
And there’s all kinds of interesting research and projects going on.
For example, there’s the Human Microbiome Project. The microbiome is that vast quantity of microbes that inhabit our body (about 10 of them for every human cell – we’re each a microbe planet). Collins says they’re looking at the microbiome in healthy people and comparing it to those with illnesses. Perhaps some day we’ll be able to test the microbes to see if we’re healthy and do preventative medicine.
Then there’s nutrigenomics – a study of the right diet based on an individual’s genome. Most important, of course, for those with unusual genetic conditions like PKU that require a very specific diet, but maybe eventually we’ll know enough to figure out what we should each eat by some method other than trial and error.
Of course there numerous drug therapies being developed from this research. I was amazed to find out that there are drugs that do nothing for most of the people with a serious illness, but that can be the difference between life and death for a select few with just the right genes. It makes our current prescription drug process look so crude.
Collins says that in a decade – and maybe in half a decade – our personal genomes will be part of our medical records (and all those will be electronic, he hopes). The doctor will be able to look up your genome and see if Drug A or Drug B will work better for you.
Of course, since it was work, I had to take notes like a crazy woman. And the PC battery gave out before Collins did – like it always does – so half my notes are in my abysmal handwriting. And after that, I had to write it all up so that people who weren’t lucky enough to hear it could find out what he said. So it was work. But it was interesting work.
And inspiring work. Collins inspired me to think about how important it is that we do this right, that we do the extensive research on genetic make up and the environment that he recommends, and that we develop a health care system that can actually work with all this information. One project he really wants to see in an extended study on the interaction between environment and genes. This project would look at a million people of all different ethnicities, genders, ages, and socioeconomic levels over a period of at least five to seven year and would cost about half a billion dollars a year. But imagine what we can do once we understand how genes and the environment interact.
There are social issues here, not just scientific ones. We have to develop a health care system that can really integrate all this data. We also need to make sure there’s no discrimination based on your genomic make up. So far it’s illegal to discriminate on health insurance due to genetic conditions, but the law doesn’t cover everything.
And we need to make certain that even as we look to cut health costs, we don’t eliminate treatments that work only for a few when they are lifesaving for that few. Cutting costs does not mean reverting to one-size-fits-all.
Listening to him, you can see a world in which people really can live long, healthy lives. It might not be immortality, but it’s a lot closer to it than we are right now. And if you let your mind wander, you can think of other places we can use this information.
Some scientists are bound to start looking at things the genome affects besides health and bodily well-being. Given how many different ways people learn, there must be some genetic patterns related to that. What if we divided schools up so that each child spent a good part of every day learning in the way that works best with their genome? I bet we’d end up with both smarter and happier kids.
Or perhaps we’ll find that the larks and owls among us – recently discussed here on this blog – are that way because of genetic sequences. Sleeping patterns, like diets, seem to vary quite a lot.
Lots of food for thought – and ideas for science fiction – in all this. Some days I love my job. (Some days I only love the paycheck.)
Nancy Jane’s story this week is “Texas Woman Abducted by Aliens.” Her collection Conscientious Inconsistencies is available from PS Publishing and her novella Changeling can be ordered from Aqueduct Press.
Check out Nancy Jane Moore’s Bookshelf for more stories.